what if no one was watching

Although I’ve lived in three different countries and worked for long periods of time in dozens of others, I had never spent a lot of time around young children (other than my own, of course, in the last five years).  I certainly never paid much attention to child development or early education. I’ve read here and there about child development in different countries, and parenting theories, but I did most of that reading early on in parenthood, and now I don’t care as much – I simply try to do the best I can within the narrow set of philosophies that Bubelah and I have adopted and treat as gospel (the importance of play as taught by Waldorf schools, promoting reading and storytelling, and a very low-pressure approach to achievement, i.e. letting them find their own pace).  But I don’t have a good understanding of how other people in my community raise their kids, let alone how parents in other cultures in the US or in foreign countries do it.

One of the aspects of our Western – particularly American – society that troubles me is the community ideal that focuses on what people “are” in terms of their work. Children are asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” by well-intentioned adults as if the goal of life is to find a profession.  Nobody ever asks kids what they want to be when they grow up with the expectation of hearing “happy” or “curious” or “living near a beach.”  Schools promote the idea of education as a “path” leading to the mythical job-guaranteeing “college” and then to a “secure” job with a multi-national corporation offering sick-care benefits and a carefully directed “retirement plan” in which the company forces you to save your money in funds they selected while they squeezed you over forty years for ever more time and ever less money.

Two thoughts:  first, my quotation marks key is starting to creak, and second, this current model of life in modern Western society is going to be unpleasant to the great majority of people. Many people may not recognize it as unpleasant, and will pay great attention to attending University X and getting a job with Megacorp Inc. all the while going home to sit in front of their 52″ widescreen and watch people who – if nothing else – are actually pursuing their dreams in the 21st century version of gladiator combat, American Idol.  And that’s something that bothers me increasingly.  I hate the stupidity of shows like American Idol (which I have never seen – I’m judging based on commercials) but I’d rather see my daughter singing “classic” songs from Toni Braxton on American Idol than hunched over a keyboard on the 3rd floor of a 5 floor office park building with the gentle flickering of fluourescent lights above her.  I’d rather see my son working as a park ranger than trudging back and forth to a job he hates so he can afford “necessities” like a gym membership and a subscription to The Economist.

I don’t meant to rant. I just wonder how much of what we “do” – meaning our work, not what we REALLY do – is driven by the idea that someone is watching us.  There are expectations everywhere: not to let down parents, relatives, friends, our schools, our community, our spouses, our children and even ourselves.  But why would anything be a “let down”?  I think that often the let down is solely internal.  I have no doubt that if I was able to maintain a reasonable lifestyle – meaning healthy food, a home, health insurance, clothing, etc. – I could do whatever I wanted without disappointing anyone.  If I switched tomorrow to being a sanitation worker/blogger, would that “let down” anyone?  It might disappoint the self-constructed mental image I have of myself, that society has contributed to, as an “educated” person who shouldn’t do manual labor.  But what would I do if no-one was watching?  What would you do?  I would argue that based on the large amount of pharmaceuticals and their heavy dosage of reality TV in America that many people are attempting to medicate themselves and their brains into not pursuing this mental line of questioning.  I’ve certainly been guilty of that myself (although I substitute movies for reality TV).

If I am honest with myself, I’d agree with an offhanded comment made by the comedian Bill Burr on (I think) Doug Benson’s podcast. He said nobody is sitting in a cubicle working on spreadsheets because they dreamed of it as a child. Nobody’s getting “filled up” by that work.  And life’s a compromise, in many ways.  Many people are happy to exchange their time for money so they can buy an iPad or a Roku.  I’m fully engaged in that compromise as things stand today.  Maybe I still will be in five years.  And maybe the goal of children in this world is to live like characters in “Defending Your Life” (one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, watch it if you haven’t seen it).  Parents do the best they can to provide a sturdy, well-built diving board for their children to leap off of, but once kids hit the water they have to swim.  The trick will be to learn to swim without fear, using whatever stroke is best for them, and not to worry that anyone is watching that they do it the “right way.”

  • Cara

    Excellent post, Steve. I will say, however, that this is not solely a Western phenomenon. Asian parents are just as demanding, if not more, regarding expectations for their children. When I was growing up, I was told (without being asked) that I had to be either a doctor or engineer. Two choices out of the tens of thousands of possibilities out there. I was expected to make an excellent living so I could support my parents in their old age and give them something to brag about, so it’s not all about buying iPads and gym memberships. I know I’m not alone.

  • http://www.nodebtmba.com No Debt MBA

    I second Cara’s comment that this is not isolated to western cultures. I also wish we weren’t so strictly defined by our professions. How do we expect to create a good work-life balance when our lives our defined by our work?

  • http://singlemomrichmom.com Jacq @ SMRM

    Although spreadsheets didn’t exist when I was a child, I still remember the beauty and symmetry of my grade 10 accounting class. So no, I didn’t dream of building spreadsheets, I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed accounting – and have also wished in the past that I didn’t have to train people that don’t share that same love.

  • Storm

    I have to agree with Jacq @ SMRM – there is something amazing about the order and symmetry in accounting… but I have to confess there is something alluring about the spreadsheet to me as well. How it is blank in front of you with so much potential to become anything.. and what a great joy it is to see how all the data feeds come to one neat and logical summary. I always imagine the data relations behind the spreadsheet as 3 dimensional layers of varying complexity (like a mash-up between Matrix and Minority Report visual effects..) But maybe Jacq @ SMRM and I are just lucky to be in the field that we happen to love, so we do not have to medicate ourselves quite as much as a rest of the population..

  • http://hopetoprosper.com Bret @ Hope to Prosper

    This post reminds me a lot of the movie Office Space.

    I am fortunate to have a really great job right now. Some of the jobs I have had in the past, I dreamed of driving away and never coming back. No matter how much you make at a job, it’s never worth it to live that way.

  • http://freefrombroke.com Glen

    Ever read Death of a Salesman? Just finished it for an English class. It it, the some of the main character is torn between doing what he loves (working on a farm) and trying to live up to his dad’s dreams (being”in business”). Very interesting read that is very much relevant today.

    A big problem these days is IMAGINATION isn’t encouraged. Kids spend their time in school training for the latest state exam. Look, it’s great to be a doctor or and engineer, but to be truly great I think you need that sense of wonder and imagination. That’s how you get artificial hearts made. That’s how you get computer programs designed. The technical side isn’t enough.

  • Chad

    Wow! Two people that actually like accounting. I can’t tell you how big of a mistake I made when I picked accounting in college. My entire reasoning was that I kind of liked business (in truth I like stock analysis, not business) and it was fairly easy to get a job in accounting. It was a “safe” and “respected” profession. Of course, now I know all that is BS (about every profession).

    When I was an accountant I always said I would have failed in life if it would have been reasonable to put, “Here lies a good accountant” on my tombstone. I don’t want to be remembered as my profession and definitely not as what society defines as a profession.

    We are definitely trying to “medicate” our brains with drugs and TV. Both are willlingly supplied by society to keep everyone in line. I can’t stand American Idol or any of the reality TV shows myself. The zombies have won and the majority of us are zombies.

  • Slinky

    Interesting article. I know I’ve “disappointed” relatives when I slowly switched my focus from harp to piano. And I know I did again when I switched from music to computer science in college. Not that they were disappointed in ME, just that they were disappointed that it wasn’t the path I chose. Feeling that impression of disappointment from people close to you can make some decisions tougher than they should be, but it’s not something that should stop anyone from doing what they really want to do. In my case, I think that disappointment came from their own personal regrets and an unconscious hope to live vicariously through me.

    It’s easy to feel like you’re on a set path that thousands have trod before you and that you must continue to follow it…but you don’t. You can choose a new path, you can take a detour, you can run or walk or even take a nap for a while. The point isn’t to keep following a certain path. The point is to know where you want to end up. I know where I’m going, and I make my own path. Sometimes I follow one of those old established roads for a while, but only because we’re going the same direction. I’m on one right now, but I’m almost to the part where I’m going to have to head off into uncharted territory and find a new path. That can be scary, but it’s always been worth it for me.

    “You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching,
    Love like you’ll never be hurt,
    Sing like there’s nobody listening,
    And live like it’s heaven on earth.”
    — William W. Purkey

  • http://www.thelivingsacred.org Gabriel

    The second post i have read on your site…AWESOME! Thank you again!

    Before i forget if you have not seen it there is a genius clip of George Carlin on YouTube talking about ‘stuff’ and our irrational need for it, search for George Carlin Stuff or paste http://youtu.be/JLoge6QzcGY it’s brilliant!

    I can completely relate to what your saying about roles and culturally expected ways of living. I am leaving a good full time job, selling our family home, car and most of our possessions and we are going location independent. There are people who think we are crazy, giving up this percieved ‘security’ and all the things that society says we ‘should’ have by this ‘stage’ of our lives. There have however been an increasing number of people who are fully behind what we are doing, some even saying i wish we could do that…..then realising that they could :0) It’s reassuring that people are starting to think outside of what TV and media says they can have and do as a job etc.

    We are going to home school our two son’s and the bump that is on it’s way, and we will most certainly not be giving them the traditional maps [although its is fine if that is what they want]. Schools appear to be training children to pass exams and that is all, educated but without a clue about how to live. We will hopefully give them the skills to learn and explore so that they can decide how they want to live their lives.

    There is a theory called ‘un-schooling’ which is worth looking into, about letting your child direct their learning with support and facilitation from parents.

    Thanks again for a great thought provoking post!

    Gabriel